We all have our different reasons for why we took up running. Health. Losing weight. Sense of achievement. It my case, it was to impress a girl by getting fit enough to go travelling with her. Whatever our reasons, I think it’s fair to say that few of us began running because we brought a bloody big wolf home.
The philosopher Mark Rowlands did just that. Before I picked up the book, I assumed the “running with the pack” thing was some sort of metaphor for humans being social creatures. But no, he genuinely owned a wolf, and the book contains the photos to prove it. “When I was 27 I did something really rather stupid” (buying his wolf Brenin). Well quite. Owning a high-energy hound forced Rowlands to exercise with his pet regularly, or risk the consequences. When you start reading the book, you’re looking for insights into why we run. After 20 pages or so, you’re as interested to know if he’ll have any furniture – or indeed limbs – left by the end.
What follows is an enjoyably rambling investigation into the meaning of life, and the meaning that running, in particular, gives life. Rowlands draws on arguments from Aristotle, Heidegger, Schopenhauer and just about everyone else from the Monty Python Philosopher’s Song, showing how the act of running illustrates many of their insights into what it is to be human.
Rowlands interweaves his argument with stories of taking his dogs out running, recounting the various thoughts he had while out with his pack. His central concept is that there is a “heartbeat” to a good run; that feeling of being purely in the moment, where the hypnotic rhythm of running takes hold. As he describes it: “A point where thinking stops and thoughts begin”. I think we’ve all experienced this; the point where whatever was bugging you before the run fades away, and random thoughts pop into your head instead. Mine are usually about what I’m having for dinner.
I was particularly drawn to his distinction between “instrumental value” and “intrinsic value”. If I do something because it leads to other benefits, it has instrumental value. For example, if I do a job because I want to get paid, then the job has instrumental value. Something that has intrinsic value, by contrast, is valuable by itself, irrespective of whether it gets me anything else. If I run because I like running, then running has intrinsic value. Losing weight is an incidental side benefit.
We live in an age that reduces everything to instrumental value. Exercise is for keeping you healthy. The environment is a series of natural resources waiting to be tapped. Education is for getting you a job. Work allows you to move up in society and live the American Dream. Deep down we know this is wrong. Intrinsic value – love, in all its various forms – is what truly matters in the world. Rowlands argues that when we run for the sake of running, when we inhabit the “heartbeat” of the run, we are experiencing a form of intrinsic value. That’s why we run.
All of which sounds, on paper, rather heavy going, but Rowlands has a talent for making the thought of nineteenth-century German miserabilists sound accessible and rather exciting. The book is endlessly quotable, with one of my favourites being “I think a good case can be made for the arse being the crowning bodily development of human beings”. It is our gluteus maximus, not our brains, that truly distinguishes us from apes, because it allows us to run upright. “It is all very well to come down from the trees, but without an arse there’s really not very much to do afterwards”.
That’s the instrumental value of running. It keeps your bum in shape. With all the strange and alarming bodily hairs I’ve started to grow in my 30s, running is the only thing standing between me and turning into a gorilla.